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2021 NFL free agency matchmaking: One fit for each AFC team

NFL free agency officially begins alongside the arrival of the new league year at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17. As we head toward the open market, Marc Sessler explores one fun free agency fit for each AFC team.

NOTE: All cap figures and projections cited below come fromOver the Cap, unless otherwise noted.

“What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)” 

This quickly deleted November tweet by Ravens wideout Marquise Brown was not the final reminder that Baltimore's blinding, run-heavy offense tends to leave some feeling unwanted. Adding a reliable veteran pass catcher for Lamar Jackson is overdue. He’s 30, but Jones led the Lions with a respectable 978 yards and nine scores last season. He's rugged, keeps drops to a minimum and offers proven consistency. Ravens fans can scream for Kenny Golladay, but how do you convince a blue-chip wideout in his prime to join an air attack that ex-Ravens wideout Steve Smith Sr. labeled as “elementary school”?

Joe Thuney
OG | Age: 28

The offensive line needs attention. Guards Jon Feliciano and Brian Winters head to market alongside sturdy right tackle Daryl Williams. Thuney's a rock. To be fair, an expensive rock who might be tagged by the Patriots. Still, the Bills can't ignore how the ground game went flat for quarters at a time. Or how Josh Allen is the sun around which all of Western New York spins. Landing a Canton-level presence at guard would go a long way toward preventing a blackout.

The typically thrifty Bengals turned heads last offseason by acknowledging that free agency even existed. They added nearly $145 million to the payroll and still have room to play with. I’d put a ring on Lawson, a remarkably consistent pass rusher who dialed up the fourth-most pressures league-wide last season. Asked about Lawson and fellow free agent William Jackson, coach Zac Taylor told The Athletic: "Those are two guys we think highly of, and we want them to be Bengals for certain." Pray this isn’t coach speak. 

J.J. Watt didn’t need the Browns, but Cleveland still needs a pass rusher. With the Saints reportedly prioritizing a new deal for safety Marcus Williams, Hendrickson is likely to cash in elsewhere. He'll make plenty of guap after a 13.5-sack breakout that showcased his power, footwork and elusiveness. His 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame would stir nightmares across from Myles Garrett. The quiet career start gives one pause, but so do cut ups of Hendrickson making mincemeat of cowed bookends.

The choice is clear. Simmons is the finest safety in football since 2019 and a glue guy among his teammates. With Von Miller's future in question, new general manager George Paton can maintain order by paying a home-grown gem who thrives on and off the field. "He is exactly the type of player a franchise aims to reward," noted beat writer Troy Renck, "and the locker room will be watching." I'd consider re-upping with Shelby Harris, too, an unsung interior defender who popped on tape as a pass-batting nuisance with sneaky wheels

(UPDATE: The Broncos are franchise tagging Simmons for the second straight year, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday.)

First-year coach David Culley and newbie general manager Nick Caserio were air-dropped into a thorny war of wills with Deshaun Watson, the franchise quarterback who wants to play for another franchise. With no desire to trade him, the Texans -- flush with needs on both sides of the ball -- pull Tyrod Taylor into a role he's played repeatedly to a tee: The veteran you can sell to casual fans until he's invariably pushed out of the lineup by Watson or a to-be-determined upstart from parts unknown.

Carson Wentz spent last season as the living example of a human operating in CTRL+ALT+DEL mode. Forcing throws and waltzing into sacks behind a battered O-line, the one-time MVP candidate appeared mentally broken while waiting for the Force ghost of DeSean Jackson to finally make an appearance. Wentz finds himself in a vastly improved ecosystem in Indy, a playoff team with front-office vision and plenty of cap space. The Colts have talent and potential in Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell. They're lacking a bona fide top dog, though, with longtime WR1 T.Y. Hilton headed for free agency. Robinson fits the bill, although the Bears could make things expensive with a tag-and-trade lever pull. 

In a world where the Saints sit roughly $69 million in the red, the Jaguars have $82 million dead presidents to toss around. The table is set for a quick turnaround if Trevor Lawrence is drafted with the No. 1 overall pick and shines while on a rookie contract. Backfield revelation James Robinson costs merely $781,000 next season, while wideouts D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. remain bargains. With Tyler Eifert out the door and Josh Oliver stuck in neutral due to injuries, Jacksonville has the need -- and requisite greenbacks -- to lure pass-catching tight end Hunter Henry away from Los Angeles.

With their offensive line in shambles, the shock-and-awe Chiefs were reduced to a mistake-prone bore in their Super Bowl collapse. The presumed return of tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz make this less of a crisis than perceived. Especially if general manager Brett Veach can keep Reiter on a short-term deal for the cap-crunched AFC champions. It's not the sexiest matchmaking effort in history, but Reiter didn't allow a sack during the entire regular season and shares a passion for magical trading cards with trusted pal Patrick Mahomes, who noted: "With Austin, I mean, I’ve even opened up Pokémon cards with that guy before. So I think our relationship is kind of on a high level after that."

From Jon Gruden last month on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast: "Richard Sherman, if you are a free agent, which there is a rumor you are, we are looking for an alpha presence in our secondary. Somebody that could play this 'Hawk 3 press technique with the read step. If you're available and interested, maybe you and I can get together at some point off-air." Tamper away, dear sir! The move would reunite Sherman with ex-Legion of Boom play-caller Gus Bradley inside a Raiders defense in search of veteran accountability. We don't need Nancy Drew bouncing around town in a blue roadster to connect these dots. 

Don't accuse me of heat-seeking clicks as I dial up yet another center. The Chargers desperately require help up front with only tackle Bryan Bulaga etched in permanent marker for 2021. Justin Herbert thrived against pressure during the most dazzling rookie debut we've seen under center in eons. Amazingly, this came behind Pro Football Focus’ 32nd-ranked offensive line. How about pairing one of the game's most exciting arms with Linsley, the highest-graded player at his position last season?

Packers fans are clicking out of here after seeing Linsley and Jones tabbed for new locales in back-to-back wishcasting sessions. I'd love for Green Bay to keep Jones, but AJ Dillon brings pop at a far reduced rate. Whispers suggest mutual interest between Jones and the Dolphins, with Miami looming as one of the few teams with ample cap space. Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed had their moments, but Jones would add a big-play, tackle-shedding star behind second-year passer Tua Tagovailoa. The question is whether Miami's inventive, forward-thinking front office believes in paying a running back (basically the least-coolest concept in today's NFL) over grabbing help in the draft.

The Patriots have $60 million-plus in green, but Bill Belichick remains an unpredictable figure in the mist. New England's mastermind could shop ‘til he drops to upgrade a bare-cupboard offense -- or go AWOL on his little sailboat, VIII Rings, before signing only James O’Shaughnessy. My guess is they'll make a serious move for one of the draft's top passers while adding a Bridge Dude. Find me a better Bridge Dude on terra firma than Fitzy!

The Jets rest in enviable territory with a bathtub of money and a flock of high picks. Needs exist all over, but the quarterback -- whether it's Deshaun Watson, Sam Darnold or fill-in-the-blank -- deserves better than last year's half-baked (or excessively baked) roster. Reliable Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler noted New York was "taking a look" at JuJu along with Will Fuller. Just 24, Smith-Schuster would arrive as a smart, hard-working wideout with an unknown ceiling and a penchant for TikTok jigs. Whoever they nab, look for new play-caller Mike LaFleur to flip the switch on offense. This won't be the same old train that veers off a cliff and tumbles 400 yards before landing on another moving train down below filled with clowns and unsupervised animals of the forest.

Pittsburgh's ground game fell to pieces behind PFF's second-worst run-blocking unit in 2020. With left tackle Alejandro Villanueva a free agent and veteran center Maurkice Pouncey out the door, in-the-red Pittsburgh is in a pinch. The Steelers could use a runner with a proven track record of creating his own opportunities. Carson is a punishing pile of bricks who generates missed tackles and yards after contact. He'd bring a dose of toughness to a run attack that looked Pop Warner-esque in 2020.

A fascinating study, Samuel has morphed into an asset that would fit almost any offense with a need at the position. Panthers coach Matt Rhule and play-caller Joe Brady played all the right keys in Carolina, unleashing Samuel for a 77/851/3 line through the air with another 200 yards on the ground. With Corey Davis, Adam Humphries and Jonnu Smith all hitting the market, Tennessee is needy. Samuel would arrive as a juicy, multifaceted sidepiece to the godlike A.J. Brown.

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